Third Fridays: Does the gallery crawl pay off for Bridgeport’s art community?

Light and noise spill out from the Zhou B Art Center onto a dark street lined with vacant brick factories, hinting at the warmth and activity inside. Cross the threshold and the eerily quiet street life is replaced with a different kind of urbanism. Hulking marble sculptures lay about like ancient ruins. Young cosmopolitans talk art and politics, wine-filled cups in hand. One floor up, a brood of children breaks away from their parents and runs circles around an installation art piece, and in another corner a spectator comments, “I just don’t get it–are those condoms?” “Finger condoms, actually,” artist Connie Noyes chimes in. “Chefs use them.”

It’s Third Fridays in Bridgeport, and on this night every month, the underground arts scene comes out to play.

Modeled after Second Fridays in Pilsen, Third Fridays is part of a larger trend to revive struggling arts communities. The economic downturn has hit art districts hard, and staying relevant has proven to be an even more demanding task than staying afloat. To bring in new viewers–and potential buyers–art district commissions and gallery owners have taken to organizing monthly gallery crawls. Free drinks and refreshments are offered as bait, but the real draw is the opportunity to mingle with art enthusiasts of all different stripes and wallet sizes.

Martin Bernstein, a jeweler and mixed-media artist who rents gallery and studio space in the Zhou B Center, says he values the face-time Third Fridays allows him with people interested in art. “[At most normal gallery events,] I can show people my work on white walls, but as an artist, you like to immerse yourself in the work. [On Third Fridays] I’m able to show people the process I’m going through, and they can see for themselves how the thoughts evolve and how the works themselves take shape.” Bernstein likens Third Fridays to a craft bazaar, where the very personal, “visceral experience” of art becomes a social encounter. “When people come to events like this…it is like an arts fair. It’s like channel surfing–you can go from one room to the next, one piece to the next. And my works unfold into one another, and [the energy of the night] feeds us. And…of course, if that could lead to sales down the road, that would be wonderful.”

It remains to be seen whether these events actually pay off for the artists, galleries, and communities that invest in them. The concrete results of buzz-generating events like Third Fridays are difficult to measure; hard numbers don’t exist, and success is judged by vibe alone. According to Robin Rios, an artist and director of the 4Art gallery in the Center, “Nine times out of ten, people coming for Third Fridays don’t buy art [that day]…With the economy, it’s tough.” However, she adds, “We’re artists. For us, it’s always this kind of economy. We’re used to it.”

Though the value of the gallery crawl may not be directly quantifiable, Third Fridays has a ripple effect that artists are confident will generate revenue down the line. According to Zulema Covarrubias, the office manager of the Center, the monthly event creates interest in the art, which eventually brings in customers. “There’s just a buzz around the city about us,” she says. “We have a lot of people who come in and buy art, for sure. That’s why we have a full house [of artists], and so many people want to rent studios here. They know we get a lot of traffic.” Noyes, the artist who created the finger condom piece, is a case in point. Working out of a studio on the third floor since January of this year, Noyes says she moved to the Center specifically because of Third Fridays. “The exposure this brings is great.” But she admits, “It’s hard to say if I’ve [gotten customers from the event], since I haven’t sold a piece since January.”

Ultimately, though, immediate financial gratification isn’t as important as the artists’ desire to get their name and work out into the open. Asked why she bothers with Third Fridays when it hasn’t brought in any new buyers, Noyes shrugs cheerfully, “Whenever I put my art out there, something comes back. It’s an energy thing.” Bernstein agrees. “It’s important to get feedback and a response [from your audience],” he says, “it’s a conversation…You make art to show it.”